View from the bluffs at Santa Cruz. The surf break furthest out is Middle Peak, the break closest in is Transitions. Steamer Lane is out of sight, around to the right. Credit, Paul McHugh

Santa Cruz Paddlefest in the 21st Century

Terror struck at the heart of the 2016 Santa Cruz Paddlefest right in its opening minutes!

Okay, okay. I confess. That’s merely a despicable bid to grab your attention. (Damn media.)

Actually, all of us contestants did have one prime concern: a nice swell might not show up. That would be kind of a bummer. Take the surf out of a surfing contest and you don’t much left…

On Friday, NOAA (the national weather agency) called for a 3-4 foot, 11-second lump during the morning’s high tide. If it appeared, this would build a scant minimum of ride-able walls for our first SUP board heats. So it was good the SUP riders were supposed to hold long paddles in their hands – since they’d be forced to generate a boost with their paddle blades to even get their long stand-up boards underway.

However! NOAA also predicted a sweet wave progression during the next few days. Saturday might see a west swell rear up to 6-8 feet at 16 seconds, producing head-high walls and better. And on Sunday that wave train was scheduled to continue to chug. Plus, the whole weekend was predicted to have wind gusts that maxed out at 10 knots. That would allow any wave-walls that cropped up to glass off nicely.

Contestants could warm up on Friday, truly hit their stride on Saturday, and still have a grand sea canvas on which to sketch an evanescent art of wandering surf wakes amidst Sunday’s grand finale.

To go all maudlin and anthropomorphic on you, it looked like the Pacific Ocean herself wanted to help us celebrate the 30th iteration of this fest, now one of the world’s premier paddle-surfing events.

“Paddle surfing?” sez you. IS there such a thing?


Paddlefest director Matt Hoff wears a jersey from the 2016 contest, and holds one up from an event 25 years before. Credit, Paul McHugh

Paddle-stabs out of the Past!

Yup. And it’s quite likely surfing’s oldest form.

Think: Polynesians in outrigger canoes, or Inuit in their walrus-hide sea kayaks. In both cases, their vigorous use of paddles launched, propelled and steered their craft on wave rides where – depending on circumstances – achieving a successful outcome could be an issue of life-or-death.

Nowadays paddle surfing is a sport, not a lifestyle. Most of its practitioners don’t go out when conditions are life-threatening. Not usually! The craft used nowadays are stand-up surfboards or SUPs, specialized surf kayaks, and waveskis – which can be loosely defined as sit-down surfboards.

The 2016 Paddlefest began with a barbecue and party held around the pool at Dennis Judson’s Adventure Sports shop. More than 100 registrants were given dinner and T-shirts stamped with a custom logo for the event. As I picked up mine, I happened to be wearing a historic relic: a faded blue “T” stamped with a logo for the very 1st Santa Cruz contest, held some 30 years before.

Since I’d been such an early adopter, a magazine asked me to write about the sport’s history, then report on the current state of competition as well. I felt eager to comply. I wished to set down some interesting factoids about development of this exhilarating pastime before my memory fades out… entirely.

Well, to quote President Millard Fillmore, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” (Many people think that Jerry Garcia penned that line… however, Jer’ was simply quoting a spiritual shooting star he saw as his musical guru. See, Fillmore was a virtuoso on the rock’n’roll mouth-harp. But I digress.)

Now, the begatting of the present surf contest was on this wise.

Back in 1985, Northern California’s avid whitewater boaters lamented summer’s drying and shrinkage of their rivers. And the finest minds among them pondered their options, and bore witness to an alternative thusly: “Behold that fine ocean, for it doth not dry up. Not ever. Eh? What foamy adventures may we seek out there?”

The boldest kayakers took heart, and yea, verily, flung whitewater boats and their largely clueless selves out in the surf. Lo, a great thrashing and splashing arose. So did a lamentation among board surfers already in the line-up. And these boarders dubbed all these clumsy invaders “butt-surfers” and worse, cursing them and their progeny unto the tenth generation.

Some paddlers looked upon the fraught scenario and wavered. Yet others said, we can build upon this chaos.

Number me among the latter. Newly hired as an outdoors feature-writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, I was in the hunt for a gripping topic for my first story, and in August 1985, I picked kayak surfing.

A female SUP rider on Friday morning at the 2016 Paddlefest. Her wave is glassy and has good form, but it’s rather small for Steamer Lane. Credit: Paul McHugh

Launch of the Bolinas Contest

Upon publication of my story, one Dianne Poslosky, leader of a Bay Area charitable organization, rang me up and asked if I thought a surf contest for kayakers might make a good fund-raising event for her group. I said, yes.

Poslosky brought on board Keith Miller, owner of Richmond’s CC&K (California Canoe & Kayak). Within months after my Chronicle feature story, this dynamic duo had a contest up and running on the beach at Bolinas. The event drew a large and enthusiastic turnout, creating a momentum that helped the contest recur for another ten years.)

Meanwhile, a parallel inventor/impresario popped up a bit further south: Dennis Judson, owner of the Adventure Sports shop in Santa Cruz. An expert guide and instructor in all sorts of water sports, Dennis was famed for a cackling laugh and a distinctive fashion sense—he was often spotted on beaches across the hemisphere clad in Ugg boots, sunglasses and a “banana-hammock” (Speedo). This rogue outfit would be accessorized as often as not by a cocktail glass. Sometimes he even held a glass in both hands, in which case he might offer you one.

Dennis launched his own surf contest a few months later. Paddlers toted their fetal skills at organizing and judging a contest from Bolinas down to Judson’s contest. Originally dubbed the Santa Cruz Surf-Kayak Festival, then (after SUP races and SUP surfing were added) the Santa Cruz Paddlefest.

I’ll offer you more history on the Santa Cruz event in a moment. First, let me back up a tad, so’s I can provide both the big picture and my personal view of this sport.

Santayana’s most quoted line: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

That would be us paddle surfers.

A good swell arrives on Saturday. Getting “roofed” at Steamer Lane is a good thing! Credit, Paul McHugh

And Well Before Bolinas

Back then in 1985, I’d not so much as heard of Don Golden. Although he’d carved up California waves with paddle craft just two decades before. Golden built his own long, fiberglass-and-wood vehicles and flung them about on swells at the most famed break in Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane. There was even a contest held there called the first annual United States Kayak Surfing Championships, way back in 1968! But I’ve been able to find no record of a subsequent contest by that name in any following year. Thus, that precursor was sui generis.

Golden’s entry mentions that he came in third. Who took the top spot and who second place? He doesn’t say. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if those slots were occupied by Mike Johnson and Merv Larson. But I hadn’t heard of them back then either, since they held sway and carved their wakes further down the coast, at Dana Point and other points south. [To find out more about these illustrious precursors to our modern day wave warriors, check out these links and savor the posted pix: ; ]

Now, I HAD heard of Tom Johnson, who was Mike’s dad, since I’d scored one of his Hollowform River Chasers when that model first hit the river scene in the 70s. Even taught myself to surf with my River Chaser, kinda-sorta, at Big River Beach near Mendocino. But by the time our first Bolinas surf contest came along, I paddled a Perception Dancer, a revolutionary boat which had taken the river world by storm. Soon, I moved on to a Dancer XT, which better accommodated my weight. Even so, in that first contest, I did what everyone else did: pick a wave, take a drop, turn no more than 15 degrees to the right or left (otherwise you’d spin off the face), brace as the wave broke, then side-surf its foam pile until I could pry my boat up and off it.

Are you curious as to why or how such a deep animosity between board-surfers and us butt-surfers started? It began right here: kayaks in the surf zone in the 1980s tended to be seriously mis-guided missiles.

The First U.S. National Kayak Surfing Team on a beach in Ireland in 1988. Center left, in the cap, is Paul McHugh. Kneeling, is team coach Matty Kinsella. We are holding a then-new Perception Sabre squirt boat,  which inspired many subsequent developments in surf craft.

Etiquette – A Surfer’s sine qua non

Not many of us had a grasp of line-up respect or etiquette. As every surfer knows, that’s THE key for getting along on the sea.

Once we dropped onto a wave, our moves appeared untutored and awkward.

Worse, after a wave broke, we proceeded to transform ourselves into a flying menace to those on the inside of the break. We’d bounce and tumble along in our large plastic logs, poised to mow down everyone and everything in our path until we were finally able to break free of the foam pile.

Imagine how that looked to some hapless board surfer, just trying to find a safe way to paddle out. By gad, that sight was like to make him pee his wetsuit! And fear, as we all know, begets anger. As it did in this case, and in copious quantities indeed.

Kayak surfers had to find a leader who could guide us from the howling wilderness of ineptitude. Perhaps even a prophet. By which I mean, a new one. Most of us remained shamefully ignorant of the earlier lessons learned and taught by Golden, Johnson and Larson.

Sound the trumpet. Cue the tympany. Enter upon our fraught scene, stage left, Rasyad Chung.

Chung Blazes a Water Trail

A Sino-Celtic amateur athlete who just happened to be put together like an NFL fullback (5’ 7” and 200 lbs of cut muscle). Chung made rapid progress in many types of outdoor sport. In his first year of paddling, he ran the Tuolumne (Class IV). In his second year of paddling, he ran Cherry Creek (Class V-VI).

In his third year of paddling, Rasyad entered the Bolinas kayak surf contest. And the next year he dominated, blowing minds by how well he surfed a low-volume, sharp-railed, squirt boat, the very first made of dense plastic: the Perception Sabre. He knew how to fully exploit the Sabre’s control surfaces and features. He’d spent months wringing it out in the steep and pounding shore break of Ocean Beach in San Francisco. (Eager to test your paddle skills? Hey, try Ocean Beach. Remember to wear a life jacket.)

I still recall myself sitting slack-jawed atop the Bolinas contest judges’ stand as I watched Rasyad line up for a wave, take it with a flurry of paddle strokes, relax in the drop, fling the Sabre onto its rail for a bottom turn, then make section after section, rising smoothly up and down the face on a fast and sinuous run. And I recall thinking: “All right. Okay, then. That’s how to do it.”

Rasyad later became the first paddle surfer ever known to ride the huge, thick and formidable Maverick’s wave at Half Moon Bay.

After his second contest triumph, Rasyad’s influence on kayak surfing proved both swift and potent. All of those who could afford it went on a hunt for squirt boats –  low volume with a sharp rail – and set about learning how to work a wave face.

Okay, now let’s return to the Santa Cruz contest.

The pre-fest party at Adventure Sports in Santa Cruz. Dennis Judson stands bare-chested on the right. Behind him and to the left is champion surfer Dan Crandall. Credit, Paul McHugh

Paddlefest Makes Progress

Dennis Judson put on his first two contests at Pleasure Point, a break to the south of Steamer Lane.

Fine site. Consistent, well-shaped waves, almost no matter the swell size.

But in terms of forging better relations with local board surfers?


Outraged that one of their favorite spots had been co-opted by butt-surfers with all their bouncy, clumsy boats, the boarders waxed our windshields, screamed, cursed and threatened fights. Normally rivals, one thing that long-boarders and short-boarders could agree on was that we sucked.

So pie-eyed with rage were they, they proceeded to vandalize their very own break – knocking our only contest Porta-Potty off the cliff and into the water.

Which act, oddly enough – proved to be my ticket onto the first U.S. National Kayak Surfing Team.

I drove a 4WD truck with a winch, and I used it to haul that broken, odious and leaky fiberglass poop-shack back up and onto shore.

It scored me points with a man who’d already made contact with kayak surfers in Europe, a paddler who schemed about how to create a true international event – Matty Kinsella. An intriguing combination of psych nurse and Franciscan friar (Third Order monk), Kinsella also possessed – or was possessed by – a mighty enviro ethos.

Matty thought that a person willing and able to go mano-a-mano with a gushing honey bucket ought to be rewarded somehow, so he selected me to be on the national team by personal fiat. Which is how I wound up surfing beaches on the west shore of Ireland in the fall of 1988, using my own new squirt boat, a Phoenix Arc.

Outside the Paddlefest contest zone, surfers compete for a wave at Transitions. This suggest what battling for a wave was like in the bad old days. Credit, Paul McHugh

A Pounding in the Auld Sod

Our big take-away from Ireland was seeing a crying need for a higher standard of judging format. Won’t call the Emerald Isle judging system unbalanced. Yet it seemed tilted on its ear by an odd principle: If a guy on the wave was from your country, he got extra points.

Took a heat or three for us to catch on.

But after that, we played by house rules.

Upshot was, counting only scores from kayak heats, Team USA emerged victorious in the First International. However, if you included scores from a wave ski division (we hadn’t known what wave skis were, didn’t own any, hadn’t practiced on any, and had not been informed that it would be an included category), then Ireland won.

So we returned home, in much the same fashion the U.S. had left Vietnam: declared victory and got out.

For a full account of Team USA’s adventures in Ireland, click here to read “Riders on the Storm.”

Can’t speak for them, but I’d guess a big take-away for the Euro teams came from watching American squirt boats in action. Their own kayak fleet consisted of river slalom boats with pole-vault poles glassed into the hulls to help them stand up for bow and stern enders in shallow water during closeouts – bizarrely, this maneuver was considered a tres classy way to finish off a ride.

So the way our squirt boats clung to walls and whipped through turns was as much of a revelation to them as it had once been for me. Afterward, a Brit champion paddler named Malcolm Pearcey put some American squirt design principles to work in a light surf boat he named the Mega Jester – and a new wave in paddle surfing was launched.

The Betterment of our Boats

Back, back, back in the U.S.A., we soon began to import Malcolm’s boats. American designers felt stimulated to come up with more wave-appropriate designs as well. Some of those new designs happened to include surf kayaks designed by Mike Johnson (like the Mako and Steamer Lane) as well as Merv Larson’s distinctive wave-skis. And thus eras of paddle surfing in the 60s and in the 90s came to be joined.

We had the right tools, we were developing the right skills. But not q-u-i-t-e fast enough to be welcomed yet at major surf breaks.

Dennis Judson moved his contest to Steamer Lane, where the “localist” mayhem continued, then worsened. Board surfers often crashed right through our contest zone, performing acts of hazardous interference. Kayakers retaliated by policing the zone and knocking these rude dudes right off their boards. People were tangled up in leashes, cut by fins, fistfights were threatened, dive knives were occasionally brandished, and city cops got called out more than once. Ambulances, too!

Local surfers proceeded to mount a big push with the city officials to ban all paddle craft from Steamer Lane and related breaks.

Meanwhile, Kinsella and I agreed, clearer judging rules could nurture big improvements in paddle surfing. A proper system could not only evaluate rides, but also educate kayakers on boat control and surf etiquette. We decided that we had to break the big picture down into small parts. We needed to build a vocabulary of maneuvers that paddlers would grasp individually. They then could proceed to stitch these moves together into a capable ride.

We had about twenty surfing maneuvers divided up into, one-, two-, or three-point moves. In ascending order, these might be a bottom turn, a cutback, and a floater. Additional points were awarded if moves were kept on the green, especially in the pocket. Success required developing a good sense for wave selection. Points were subtracted for interference, snaking, and paddle-out interference.

A system like this produced a heinous amount of paperwork and book-keeping on the judges’ stand amid the general frenzy of contests. Had we not been young and full of fizz, had we not possessed a giant posse of volunteers (contestants worked the judging and everything else while also competing), we would never have been able to make it fly.

Yet fly it did, for four years or so. It was eventually displaced by a panel of hired professional judges operating by more classic surf contest rules. The death knell for the move-counting system came when international teams refused to use it. Yet that proved ultimately okay with me and Kinsella. During the years when our system held sway, it had accomplished its primary mission.

The skill and etiquette of kayak surfers had greatly improved. Even so, the hostility between boarders and paddlers had not. It remained intractable, frozen in place. (“The boarhound and the boar circle as before.” – T. S. Eliot). I saw no easy way to break out of it. Then a couple of small yet related events put a crack in the ice.

The iconic surfer statue on the bluff at Santa Cruz, nicely togged out by locals for Saint Patrick’s Day. Credit, Paul McHugh 

The Peace of The Bull

Among the bad-ass enforcers of localism at Steamer Lane was a large-ish chap by name of Vince Collier. Vince stood about 6’ 3”, weighed about 260, and boasted a barrel chest and huge shoulders. He was nicknamed The Bull. Vince regularly rode Maverick’s, gloried in the Lane whenever it went big. He was an utter terror to any kook who strayed onto his turf, or – worst of all – dropped in on him. But The Bull developed legal difficulties, which included indictment for an attack on another surfer. I heard that he expressed remorse. As an outdoors writer for a regional newspaper, I thought it was the right moment to chat with The Bull about surf zone violence.

I set up a breakfast meeting at a café in Santa Cruz. And I felt rather nervous about it. I’d seen Vince slap his board on the water and bellow at intruders, his face flushed beet-red and his voice hoarse with rage. The man was a veritable icon of victory through intimidation. If I happened to ask the wrong question, I could well imagine myself staggering out of that restaurant with a fork protruding from my forehead. But instead, Vince acted the perfect gentleman. And he was surprisingly articulate to boot, as he explained why he needed to change his ways.

My SF Chronicle story, which featured The Bull preaching for more civility in the surf zone, must’ve helped him out with his legal problems a tad. It for sure didn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, Judson got a great tip from another local waterfront demigod: to end disrupted contests, hire your local break enforcers as protectors.

Thus, it was a perfect time for Judson to approach Collier. They struck a deal with blinding speed. Vince and his pals would get jobs as security guards out on the water, and Collier could make a little more dough on the side by having a female partner operate a food booth at the event.

All problems did not evaporate immediately. Yet, most of ‘em did.

The Pax Bovis (Peace of The Bull) made it possible for other surfers to take a fresher, calmer look at the growing ability of paddle surfers to handle themselves well in the break.

A while later, when Maverick’s star and local surf shop owner Peter Mel (aka The Condor) said he liked the skills he saw paddlers display at Steamer Lane, he caught a ration of crap from other boarders. But that moment underscored how the issue was trending. Another landmark was reached when Maverick’s maven Jeff Clark showed up to compete in a SUP division at the Paddlefest.

And Subsequently

In years after, there’ve been international kayak-surf festivals and paddle fests at venues all over the globe – from Scotland to Portugal, from Costa Rica to Australia.

Santa Cruz’s own Steamer Lane has frequently taken a proud place on that world championship schedule. A shift in management happened recently, when an aging Dennis Judson transferred proprietorship of the event to David Grigsby, who with wife Jessica bought Kayak Connection shops in Santa Cruz and Moss Landing from founders Mark Pastick and Margaret Collins.

Grigsby brought in fresh sponsors, new judges, and ramping up the paddle races that used to be a poor cousin of the surf events.

At the 2016 opening party on Thursday evening, I asked Judson how it felt to be freed of the responsibilities of managing the contest, and yet still be able to compete. He uttered his trademark cackling laugh.

“Love it. Just love it. Beauty of this thing is that it pushes you, it makes you go out there and try moves that you might not attempt otherwise. That’s what’s so great about these contests. They advance the sport, for individuals and for the collective.”

Dennis has been taken off the water and away from us now. Forever. Due to a bad ticker. Yet his spirit lives on. That famous, creaky laugh of his yet seems to echo above the bluffs at Steamer Lane, whenever a butt-surfer enjoys a fabulous ride. Or suffers a fabulous wipe-out.